Mr. de la Pava’s new book, Lost Empress, is another overstuffed portmanteau—half farce, half serious social novel, half compendium of meditations on everything from Joni Mitchell’s early albums to the superiority of football’s 4-3 defensive alignment. That’s three halves, but as with A Naked Singularity,Lost Empress feels bigger than a single book. It gives you your money’s worth ... Lost Empress can feel loose and arbitrary, and it takes a while for its many moving parts to start humming. But once this monster of a book gathers momentum, it carries the reader into a teeming, complex world guided by a logic that’s never far removed from lunacy.
So does de la Pava’s old-school autodidacticism mean that his work is uncontaminated by influence, something new under the literary sun? In most ways no, but in some important and thrilling ways yes ... The style, of course, is the extraordinary thing, as it would need to be to unite all the elements of a novel of this length and sprawl. It is colloquial in tempo yet nerdy in content, divinely detached yet intimately casual in tone, impossibly learned and improvisational at the same time. If de la Pava has a signature move, it’s to zoom out from a highly specific action or bit of characterization in order to generalize about or extrapolate from it, while still holding on to the speech-replicating sentence structures that ground that action in a kind of conversational specificity.
As with the author’s debut novel, A Naked Singularity (2012), the New York City criminal-justice system figures prominently, its jargon and bureaucratic instruments providing realist texture, while its absurdities and cruelties fuel the fury that is this novel’s molten core. Again we witness de la Pava’s gleaming wit, philosophical benders and pop-culture fixations, and the sheer intensity with which he hurls his words in this even more assured work of incandescent literary maximalism. And the underdog triumphs again.